A variety of personal, societal and policy factors lie behind why men, on average, live four years less than women in Ireland, but there are things men can do to improve the odds of a longer life for themselves.
Men’s Health Week (June 12th-18th) will be highlighting measures that could reduce preventable health problems in males of all ages. A 46-page booklet, Action Man: 10 Top Tips for Men’s Health, is one of the new resources produced by the Health Service Executive in conjunction with Men’s Health Forum in Ireland.
David Gillick, a former European athletics champion and Olympian, is now a TV sport presenter and mental health advocate. The 39-year-old lives in Dublin with his wife, Charlotte, and their three children, Oscar (seven), Olivia (four) and Louis (two).
He had a mental health crisis after his athletics career ended at age 30. Within weeks, he went from being an elite athlete to working in an office for a sports marketing firm and later a corporate performance company. He struggled with the loss of identity, of routine, of having clear goals and a sense of purpose.
“I didn’t give myself time to deal with change or understand what was happening. It had a profound impact on my entire life” – in terms of career and working towards buying a house. Going into a job with no experience, he wondered did his track medals, which included two European golds for 400 metres indoors, count for anything?
He wasn’t exercising and “I was eating awful, I comfort ate” – contrary to his public image as winner of RTÉ’s Celebrity Masterchef in 2013. Over three years, he spiralled down into depression; on the darkest days he wanted to end his life. But, after Charlotte became pregnant with Oscar, impending fatherhood was the catalyst for seeking help and turning his life around.
Working as a freelancer now, Gillick has to impose his own routine. “My priority nowadays is family. As an athlete, you are the priority and you can slip into that mindset.”
What habits do you prioritise for physical health?
I run four to five times a week. I started getting back into running by doing 5km parkruns; I was coming from a sprint background, when 400 metres was a long run. Last year, I targeted the Dublin City Marathon and I am doing it again this year. On the day of my 40th birthday this July, Charlotte and I are running in a 10km in London.
What helps keep you mentally well?
Having a purpose is important, whether that’s professionally or personally. Simple things like setting run targets, planning a holiday for the family and what I want to achieve professionally.
I journal a bit. This is something I would have done when I was competing, keeping training diaries. Also focusing on my breathing, a bit of meditation, and I use mind maps.
What I find really beneficial is it’s a safe environment and I can be open and honest. By talking about various things in life, you create an understanding
Sometimes with mental health, you question your purpose. It’s about reflecting and spending a bit of time with yourself. As an athlete, you have to learn to do nothing and be comfortable in that.
But I got so far away from that when I retired. Transitioning into the “real world”, it was go, go, go and I stopped doing all the little things I did for myself. Those are the things now that I am learning are quite important. I am more aware too of how I talk to myself.
When you are in front of cameras and up presenting, it’s daunting and very intensive. I try to take a couple of deep breaths, or quick body scans – tense various muscles around my body for a couple of seconds and then relax them, that centres yourself. It’s about managing the energy.
I started going to counselling every week in early 2016, and I go every second week now. I go privately and it’s not the cheapest service, but what I find really beneficial is it’s a safe environment and I can be open and honest. By talking about various things in life, you create an understanding. I will be looking after my physical wellbeing for the rest of my life and my mental health is no different.
Are there wellbeing measures you aspire to adopt?
I should be saying “no” more. You like to please people and help them out, but at the same time, you have to balance life and the reality of having kids.
There’s the practical things like putting down the phone; not being on the phone in bed; not comparing myself to other people; trying to have a routine when it comes to bedtime.
What societal changes would you most like to see to support men’s health in Ireland?
I do a lot of corporate wellness work. On the positive side, I hear that hybrid working does give men more time for things they like to do for themselves, be that activities or spend time with kids etc, which is all really good. The caveat there is from a professional standpoint, if you are starting a new role or trying to bed yourself into a new organisation, that could be difficult if you are not in the office and not getting that corporate/social interaction.
Not everyone has kids or loved ones at home. How many people are working at home in isolation day after day? There are people who want more engagement, a helping hand and to feel like part of something bigger. I think there is also uncertainty about these arrangements long-term, which can cause stress.
There still is stigma around mental health. A lot of issues stop people opening up, such as fear of being judged, competitiveness in the world and in the workplace. There is also the alpha male syndrome, we don’t talk about this. I think we are sometimes slow to be aware of what has got us into that place – stress, diet, sleep, alcohol, drugs can all come into it.
Do we understand what mental health is? It is so broad. Just because you have had a mental health issue doesn’t mean your mental health is compromised for the rest of your life. Just like physical health, mental health is quite fluid. We have to create an understanding around that.
Men’s Health Week covers a range of topics and that’s important because men die younger than women do. [Male life expectancy at birth was 80.8 years in Ireland in 2020, compared with 84.4 years for women, according to findings from the Central Statistics Office released in April.]
If we could just get men to check in with themselves more and not be afraid of putting their hand up and showing vulnerability. Through my journey, I think I am a better person for it; a better parent, a better husband, and that’s what matters.